Search This Blog

Thursday, April 12, 2018


My books in Arizona
My reading year started off slowly in January. All a-flutter over a trip to the Yucatan with an old friend, to be followed by the cross-country trek with Artist and dog to our winter quarters in the high desert, I could hardly concentrate on books and think I only read the first three on my “Books Read 2018” list that month. Even once we were here in Arizona, all the business of getting settled in and reacquainted with our surroundings and meeting new neighbors and, in my case, studying Spanish meant that it was quite a while before I could settle down to books. 

As it has turned out, much of my reading this winter and early spring has been history and economics (though that fat volume of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations got shoved aside rather abruptly by more reading I found compelling in the moment) — the world, the Southwest, and Mexico. And now, for a couple of days this past week, I found myself completely immersed in a different side of the European World War II experience, thanks to Dennis J. Turner’s What Did You Do in the War, Sister? How Catholic Nuns in Belgium Defied and Deceived the Nazis in World War Two

Book in focus
Dennis Turner, professor of law at the University of Dayton in Ohio, is a summer resident of Leelanau County, where he and I met (no surprise!) at Dog Ears Books. Lately we have had quite a bit of e-mail correspondence about his book. The subject intrigued me, and equally intriguing was Turner’s approach to writing the story. 

Beginning with a wealth of source material, including letters and journals written by a group of nuns in Nazi-occupied Belgium, the author made the decision to create a fictional nun to serve as his narrator and then wove together various strands of history — troop movements, bombings, strictures of wartime civilian life and in the life of different religious orders — to show the war in Belgium and France through the eyes of his fictional main character, a young American nun from Ohio, sent by her order shortly before the war began to a convent and girls’ school in Belgium.

This is one book that compels the reading of every page, including sections preceding and following the main story. Turner begins by giving a timeline of events beginning in 1932 and 1945, an extremely helpful historical review. The preface then tells his own personal story — his initial introduction to the Belgian nuns’ story, his own experiences with Catholic education, the atheism he now espouses, his role on the faculty of a Catholic university — as well as background on the particular order of nuns whose experiences inspired his book. His acknowledgements section (“Author’s Reflections”) serves in part as a continuation of the preface, his expressions there truly reflective and grateful for experiences that made his book possible and indicative of learning that, while it did not convert him, enlarged his perspective on religion.

Of course, it is the story that is primary. We first meet Sister Christina in December 1944. The town of St. Hubert and the nuns of Our Lady of Namur had thought the Nazi occupation was over when American soldiers arrived in September, but now they are enduring a second occupation by German troops. Sister Christina recounts her struggle with fear of death, likening it to that experienced by a soldier in battle. Her religious training had schooled her in acceptance, and she had done well in difficult circumstances for several years; however, when she is wounded and a fellow nun beside her killed in a bombing raid, she is gripped by fear. Not wanting the  bravery of the Sisters of Our Lady to be forgotten, should they not survive the war, Sister Christina resolves to write the story of their wartime life and activities, relying on the detailed diary she had always kept. 

Sister Christina speaks German as well as French and, as an American, is a native English speaker, so her linguistic abilities repeatedly make her a logical choice for special responsibilities. When the nuns become active involved in the Resistance, for instance, and men claiming to be downed American pilots come to the convent seeking shelter, it is Sister Christina who is asked to determine whether they are genuine Americans or German imposters. Here she faces a moral dilemma she never expected would be hers in a life of strict obedience, since judging a man to be an imposter meant sending him to certain death.

The convent had not prepared me for these kinds of choices. If any decisions needed to be made, my Sister Superior made them. I naively assumed that if I were somehow given the power of choice, it would simply be a matter of choosing the obvious good and rejecting the obvious evil. The options were black and white, like our habits. Thus, it was a distressing surprise to discover that having freedom of choice drops you into a world of moral ambiguity. Evil may be wrapped in goodness, and good may have evil buried inside.  

… Of course, I might let Sister Ursula carry the entire moral burden of choice. I could escape responsibility by claiming that … I was just obeying Sister Ursula’s orders. I am sure, however, such a rationalization would not have eased my troubled conscience much.

The nuns sheltered and concealed many kinds of fugitives behind their walls. Some were other Resistance fighters, others American pilots shot down by German guns.

In the fall of 1941, persecution of the Jews increased. As a result, Sister Ursula quickly agreed with [Father] Cyril’s request to give refuge to Jews. 

In addition to those Jews literally hidden in the convent, there were Jewish girls “hidden in plain sight” as regular Catholic students of the nuns’ school. These girls were given Christian-sounding names and taught basic prayers and responses. They had to eat whatever was served, including non-kosher pork; they were to speak only French at all times; and their identities were to be kept hidden even from one another. They were not, however, to be baptized or in any way pressured to convert, and a complicated system was developed whereby the Jewish students lined up to receive communion were given an unconsecrated wafer from a secret portion of the ciborium. Their own religion was respected at the same time that they were disguised as Catholic students.

We had built a delicate house of cards based on complete silence, and it would entirely collapse if the Abwehr heard we were knowingly sheltering even one Jewish girl. A mere rumor could trigger a full-scale invasion of the convent and school by Abwehr agents. 

Sister Christina thought when initially sent to Belgium that she would remain in the one sheltered convent, but war shattered that expectation. Neither German nor American bombs spared civilians or those in religious orders. Villages, homes, farms, churches, and convents were equally at risk. (Sister Christina says that she and the others, irrationally, did not have the same fear of American bombs as they did of the Germans, because they realized the Americans were there to liberate them from Nazi occupation.) When their convent home is destroyed, the sisters have to take to the road with other refugees, and throughout the story they are given refuge as often as they give refuge to others.

Her own role is one of increasing complexity, as Sister Christina must wear different masks in the fulfillment of her wartime duties. Her impassive nun’s face at times had to be replaced by a shy, coy flirtatiousness designed to stall German officers so that resident refugees would have time to hide before a search of the convent. With men coming as downed pilots, in order to determine their authenticity she had to set aside silent reserve to engage in lively conversation about American life. And occasionally with stubborn bureaucrats or soldiers it was necessary for her to raise her voice and scold, as if bringing unruly schoolboys to order. 

In the reality of life in occupied Belgium, for everyone concerned, fear alternates with hope, doubt with certainty, and the relief of liberation with the return of occupying forces, occupiers more desperate than ever as their cause becomes more hopeless. At one point the cellar of the convent (serving as bomb shelter) is divided into sections for housing German soldiers, Belgian nuns, and wounded American soldiers who are technical prisoners-of-war. It is a complicated time, and when Sister Christina sees the extreme youth of German boy soldiers she can’t help feeling sorry for them, realizing that “he and his generation would pay the bitter price” for the indoctrination to which they had been subjected. 

While the author carefully notes each instance in the story where he changed or fabricated an event or a conversation, the illusion of reality will not be disturbed for any but the most hidebound literal readers. To read, after all, is frequently to enter into the life of fictional characters. Moreover, not only the background but the majority of facts in this story are documented, making the fictional narrator perfectly believable.

I will bestocking Dennis Turner’s book this summer in my Northport bookstore and hope to have the author on hand at least once to meet a local reading public I know will be appreciative of his efforts and the results. What Did You Do in the War, Sister? is a book that will have have broad appeal and broaden anyone’s historical knowledge of World War II with its page-turning story.

We shall return -- in mid-May!


Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

Will have to put this on the TBR pile... my great aunt and her two daughters were hidden by nuns in Belgium!! Thanks for this review!

P. J. Grath said...

Barbara, I'm glad you saw this! Do you know the order of nuns and the town where your great aunt and her daughters were hidden? I've been thinking about your novel, EVEN IN DARKNESS, and also the memoirs by Sigrid Thomas and Luisa Owen, other authors who spoke to an audience in my bookstore. Sigrid and Luisa's memoir, your novel, Dennis's blended fiction/nonfiction book -- all give different perspectives on World War II life in Europe as it was experienced by noncombatant women. I'm contemplating a post on this soon. If you have thoughts I could use, please feel welcome to send them along. And thanks for reading and commenting here!

Carla Cunningham said...

Hi you two!
We have been worried about is David, and how are things going?
I wrote to your address, but didn't hear anything so maybe it didn't get to you. It was a different address than before!

We are going to get a snow storm tonight!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Ugh

Hope you two are ok,

Love, Carla and Bruce

P. J. Grath said...

We're in good order, Carla. Maybe I gave you the wrong p.o. #. I've decided that David's (much-vaunted, as I always refer to it) dyslexia is contagious, as I keep mixing up the numerals in our address. Will e-mail it to you. Glad to hear from you!